FROM SACRAMENTO — The Legislature has a lot on its plate: water, healthcare, state survival. . . . So when the Senate leader identifies his top priority, ears perk up.
At least mine do. The Senate president pro tem -- "pro tem" for short -- normally has the power to make things happen. Especially when he's allied with the minority leader, as he seems to be in this case.
Freshman Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) called a Capitol news conference last week to declare that his "No. 1 priority" -- the "most important" agenda item for California -- is to revamp public schools with sufficient vocational education to prepare young people for the "new economy."
Except, educators don't call it "voc ed" anymore. It's now "career tech education."
To say the news conference was sparsely attended would be generous. You could count the reporters on one hand. This subject is very wonky. Moreover, the Capitol news corps has been shrinking because of financial hard times.
The news conference subject was the decline but potential rebound of career tech.
"We are zapping ourselves of economic vitality by not assuring that thousands of young people are educated and trained for the workforce," Steinberg said.
In 1987, nearly 74% of California high school students had taken some voc ed course, according to the California Manufacturing and Technology Assn. By last year, that percentage had dropped to around 29%.
Meanwhile, companies have been complaining that California schools aren't producing enough skilled workers.
Jack Stewart, president of the manufacturing group, cites one Southern California example: the makers of aerospace fasteners -- precision nuts and bolts that hold aircraft together. Alcoa is the biggest company, but there are several others in the Los Angeles Basin. They produce 23% of the world's fasteners, $1 billion worth and provide 10,000 jobs.
"They're unable to find the skilled workers in Southern California to fill the jobs," Stewart says. So they must recruit from elsewhere or move out of state.
One result of an under-skilled workforce, Stewart adds, is a smaller middle class. As of December, the state had lost about 730,000 private-sector jobs with an average annual wage of $69,000 during the previous eight years. During that time, California gained 763,000 private-sector jobs that paid an average of $42,000.
Not good for the tax base.
What happened to voc ed -- all those intriguing wood, metal and auto shops?
First, there was the misguided attitude that if Junior didn't obtain a four-year college degree, he was doomed to second-class status, if not failure. So high schools shaped their curricula to meet University of California entrance requirements.
Second, voc ed courses, with all their equipment that constantly needs updating, aren't cheap. In recent years, they've been among the first to land on the chopping block during periodic budget crises.
Steinberg and many Democrats believe it's possible to prepare students for the university while still training them in career tech.
Rigorous math courses are needed to enter UC and also often to work in construction, he says. Provide options.
Employer groups and Republicans are inclined to just make sure high school graduates acquire enough skills to land good-paying jobs that don't require four-year degrees.
"Not every course needs to be focused on entering the UC system," Stewart insists. "That doesn't make sense. Every student doesn't have to fit through the same narrow keyhole. Some students want to go on and get a PhD. Others can't wait to get out of high school."
And too many drop out of high school -- 21% statewide, 32% in the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to newly revised state data.
"That's shameful," Steinberg says. "It's unacceptable from a human perspective. And it's unacceptable if we intend to have the most robust economy in the country.
"Part of the reason kids drop out is because they're struggling academically. But it's often also because they don't see the relevance -- the relation between what's being taught and what they might do with their adult life."
They're bored. Maybe some training in a skill -- computers, nursing, construction, airplane fasteners -- could interest them and benefit the economy.
Steinberg introduced a bill that would provide matching grants for "green" businesses if they agreed to partner with high schools on career tech education. The program would be funded by $5 billion in bonds, repaid by an existing utility fee that generates $300 million annually.
The money now goes to renewable energy research.
He called it "an investment in reducing the dropout rate, expanding workforce opportunities and targeting climate change."
Other bills were introduced by Sens. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara) and Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley).
Senate Republican Leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta stood with the Democrats at the news conference and declared, "There is a lot of common ground across party lines here . . . . I think you're going to find successes in the Legislature on both sides of the aisle."
Good. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also is a career tech booster.
So what's stopping everyone? Money. The state's still broke.
It reminds me of what my mom used to tell us kids as we loaded our plates: Make sure your eyes aren't bigger than your stomachs.
Maybe a little career tech; easy on everything else.